When I was an undergraduate at the University of Oxford in the 1960s, rumours were rife that some history students earned money by writing others’ weekly essays for them. Many years later, someone even boasted to me about how much money they had made this way.
But plagiarism of this sort had absolutely no effect on degree outcomes, since none of the grades awarded for these essays played any part in formal, degree-related assessment. What counted – for better or worse – was exclusively one’s performance in 11 three-hour written exams taken at the end of one’s third undergraduate year.
I recalled those rumours as I read the Quality Assurance Agency’s recent report on what it terms “custom essay writing services” (“Bar essay mills from advertising and search engines, says watchdog”, News, 18 August). On the face of it, the QAA’s plans for tackling what is undoubtedly a dangerous growth industry seem robust: prohibit essay mills from advertising or being accessed via search engines, and even make it a criminal offence for anyone to aid or enable individuals, for financial gain, to commit acts of academic dishonesty.
But I can tell you now that none of these remedies will work. Prostitutes are supposed to be banned from advertising – but we’ve all seen the “massage parlour” stickers affixed to the inside of telephone booths. Many – most, it seems – of the offending essay mill websites are based overseas. Yes, universities could restrict students’ access to such websites via institutional wi-fi and campus-based computers. But quite apart from the unfortunate precedent such restriction would create, does anyone seriously think this would deter the determined student plagiarist? In the UK, the term “academic dishonesty” is indeed frequently used. But attempting to define it in law would be fraught with difficulty – and, in any case, the courts are loath to interfere in matters of academic judgement.
But while we will never entirely eradicate the well-run essay mill, there are a number of simple steps that can be taken to put many such enterprises out of business.
The first is to embed the formal written exam as a compulsory component of assessment. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favour of what’s termed “multimode assessment”. But the timed writing of an invigilated exam has its place. I stipulate that my students must obtain a specified minimum grade in such an exam if they wish to pass my module (which will also typically assess researched long essays and scholarly presentations).
Then we need to revisit class sizes (something on which the QAA’s much-vaunted Quality Code is strangely silent). I teach students in small groups. If a student I knew to be mediocre suddenly produced a measured and challenging paper written in sparkling English, my suspicions would be aroused at once. And I reserve the right to conduct (with a colleague) a formal oral examination of the student to test any such doubts.
The QAA also needs to address academic complicity in essay mill enterprises. I have never personally met any academic who’s involved in such a venture. But if media reports are to be believed, such miscreants certainly exist. It must be made absolutely clear to them that such involvement could, if proven, result in dismissal for gross misconduct.
Finally, we need to accept that some UK universities and colleges are themselves essay mills, at least after a fashion. By this I mean that they permit students to submit “draft” essays for comment and correction. In terms of “formative” assessment, I accept that such a practice might have some value. But how many “drafts” is a student permitted to submit? The Quality Code seems to have no answer to this question.
I would certainly not claim that my remedies for the essay mill plague are completely foolproof. Or that they are particularly original. Colleagues have quite rightly drawn attention to other countermeasures that I applaud – such as not setting the same or near-identical assignments year after year.
But what I am sure about is that the countermeasures I propose are reasonably easy to implement. They do not involve outside agencies, such as internet and search engine providers. And they do not require legislation.
Geoffrey Alderman is professor of politics and contemporary history at the University of Buckingham.